Thursday, November 27, 2014

Early Inspiration: Richard Steinheimer

Southern Pacific Night Train - Richard Steinheimer
December 25, 1993. I was 13-years-old.

My dad was in the Navy, and that meant moving to a new place every year or so. This time he was transferred to Alameda, California. The military housing we were assigned to was on Treasure Island, halfway between Oakland and San Francisco.

Track Forman's Watch - Richard Steinheimer
I was immediately captivated by the beauty of this place. I would get up early and watch the sunrise over Berkeley. I would watch it disappear behind the Golden Gate Bridge in the evening. It was December, and at night the San Francisco skyline was lit for Christmas.

I wanted to capture all of this. I wanted to remember. I knew that we would not live on the island for very long, and then it would be off to somewhere else.

So when my parents asked me what I wanted for Christmas, I knew there was only one thing: a camera.

On Christmas morning there wasn't a whole lot under the tree. Service members didn't earn a lot in those days, and it was especially difficult financially to live in an expensive city like San Francisco. But there was a gift colorfully wrapped for me under the tree, and one for my older brother and younger sister, too.

Under the wrapping paper and inside a box was a Kodak 110 point-and-shoot camera and a handful of film cartridges. This was my Christmas present. It was also the very beginning of a journey that I've been on now for over two decades.

28 Degrees Below At Thistle, Utah - Richard Steinheimer
My grandparents used to give me their old magazines whenever we would visit them. Trains was one of the magazines often found in the stack. I remember when I was about 14-years-old looking at one particular issue of Trains that featured the photography of Richard Steinheimer.

I was blown away.

I was a kid who really didn't know anything about photography, but what I saw on the pages of that magazine made a lasting impression on me. Steinheimer's images were at a level above those of the other photographers that I saw.

Richard Steinheimer's photographs were easily recognizable. You could tell it was one of his images without even looking at the credit or reading the caption. There was a certain aesthetic that was unique to him.

UPRR No. 3957 "Challenger" - Richard Steinheimer
Richard Steinheimer was born in 1929 and began capturing images at the age of 17. He majored in photography at San Francisco City College and studied under renown photojournalist Joe Rosenthal. He spent the first six years after graduating as a photojournalist before settling on product photography.

Photojournalism and product photography were not Steinheimer's passion. He was passionate about railroads in the vast landscapes of western America.

For six decades, over 400 of Steinheimer's photographs were published in different magazines, mostly railroad publications like Trains. His photographs were printed in dozens of books, including several that featured his images exclusively. His photographs have hung on gallery walls, such as the Robert Mann Gallery in New York.

Armageddon And Creation - Richard Steinheimer 
Despite that, and quite sadly, most of the photography world has never seen a Steinheimer photograph. Most people have never heard of him. He might be the most overlooked and under-appreciated photographer of the last half-century.

Richard Steinheimer died in 2011 after battling Alzheimer's Disease for over a decade. He was 81.

Even though I was young when I was first exposed to his photography, there are two important lessons that I learned from Richard Steinheimer.

First, photography isn't always easy. I wish I could remember the exact quote, but it was a long time ago that I read this. Steinheimer said something to the effect of, "Photography is being in the right place at the right time, and that often means being someplace that other people are not willing to go."

Southern Pacific Steam Helper at Saugus - Richard Steinheimer
Steinheimer photographed at night, in freezing cold, during a storm, etc. He took risks. He went places few dared, and certainly at times when most were in the comfort of their homes. He put himself in the right place at the right time, even if it seemed a little crazy to be there.

The other lesson I learned from Richard Steinheimer is that photographs can speak to the viewer. His images tell stories. The viewer has an emotional response to his photographs. He made the scenes come alive and gave them meaning. His photographs were important. They were the opposite of snapshots.

I would later come to know this as photographic vision. It is something that Steinheimer had mastered like few others. Perhaps that is why some have called him "the Ansel Adams of railroad photography."

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